10 Tips to help someone in an anxiety attack
When you’re feeling anxious, particularly when you’re in a panic or anxiety attack, the world seems a frightening and threatening place. You may feel unable to share what you’re going through with those around you which makes you feel alone and contributes to your fear. People who experience anxiety are often really good at hiding their feelings because they worry that those around them won’t understand or will judge them badly. They know that if you haven’t experienced anxiety yourself it’s difficult to understand what they’re going through. But if you look out for subtle changes in your friend’s or loved one’s behaviour you can spot when they’re struggling with anxiety or even having an anxiety attack.
Signs to look out for within a situation, notice if the person:
• becomes quiet and less talkative
• looks more thoughtful, serious, or tense
• fidgets or appears uncomfortable or unsettled
• excuses themselves to leave the room or gathering more frequently
• decides to leave the place you’re in earlier than planned or quite suddenly
This is not an exhaustive list but if you notice a few of these signs it could indicate that the person is doing battle internally while trying not to show it externally.
As the person who is experiencing high levels of anxiety you can treat yourself really quite harshly at a time when you need kindness and support. It’s very common when someone is feeling anxious that they’re running through a silent, internal monologue that goes along the lines of: “Get a grip, stop being so stupid and weak, you’re being an idiot, everyone will think you’re ridiculous if you tell them what you’re thinking, no-one else is freaking out so just get a hold of yourself and stop being such a baby.” Which doesn’t help at all and just makes you feel worse! The fear is that if you admit your anxiety to someone else, your worries will be proven by their reaction being as scornful as you imagine it will be.
I know that if your friend, work colleague or relative was feeling anxious and fearful, and having these mean, damaging thoughts, that you’d want to help them, you’d want to ease their pain and fear.
So, if you think someone is experiencing an anxiety attack, here’s what you can do:
• ask them quietly, when no-one can hear, how they’re feeling, if they’re okay. They’re more likely to be honest with you if it’s a private conversation
• they may say they’re fine at first but if you think that may not be true let them know that you’ve noticed they seem a little quiet/tense/uncomfortable
• ask them if they’d like to take a break, get some air, perhaps step outside for a moment – let them know you’re happy to come with them or if they’d like to be alone that’s fine too
• if they still say they’re fine they may not be ready or able to share their feelings so just let them know that you’re available to talk to if they want to. You can stay with them for a few moments more, in silence or talking about something else, in case they decide to open up to you after all. You can’t force someone to talk but letting them know you’re aware and you care will mean a lot to them and they may open up in the future
• alternatively, if the person tells you they’re feeling anxious or worried be ready to listen to them but not try to fix them
• ask if they can tell you what they’re anxious about. Resist the urge to rationalise their fear or tell them there’s nothing to worry about, that doesn’t help and only makes them feel more foolish for feeling this way in the first place
• instead tell them that you understand it must be difficult to feel this way, that they’re not alone and that you’re here to help them in any way you can
• ask if they know what might make them feel better right now, would it help to talk about it, or to leave the place you’re both in, or to just stand together quietly?
• they may not know what to do, when someone is in the thick of an anxiety attack they can’t think straight and even breathing seems difficult. There are a couple of exercises you can suggest to focus on what’s real right now and so divert their attention from the worries racing through their mind. Do the exercises with them so they feel less alone.
– exercise 1: focus your attention on your feet, notice each foot in detail, one at a time – feel the weight of each foot pressing into the floor and where on the foot the pressure is felt, what do the socks and/or shoes look and feel like, do the feet feel hot, cold, comfortable, achey?
– exercise 2: go through your senses one by one, naming out loud one thing you can see, hear, smell and touch. Keep rolling through the senses, being as detailed as you like, as many times as necessary
• the aim of these exercises is to bring the mind that’s racing with a million thoughts a second, probably about what happened in the past or what could happen in the future, to what’s real and true right now in this moment
It sounds counter intuitive but for the anxious person it can feel easier to stay in the panic attack, with the worries and the fear than to fight against it by trying to gain control over your mind by focusing on the present moment. It can be really difficult and take a lot of energy and effort to focus a scattered mind on one thing. But sharing how they’re feeling and using techniques to ground them in the present moment is the best way to gain that control, to ease the fear, to slow the racing heart and reduce the cortisol coursing through the body
There’s no way of knowing how long it could take for the anxiety to ease. The kindest and most supportive thing you can do is to support the person with whatever they need to deal with the anxiety, until they feel calmer and more in control. If your friend or loved one was taken physically ill you would stay with them and do whatever was needed to help them. It’s not so different if you know someone experiencing a mental health challenge.
How each individual experiences anxiety varies, I’ve written from my personal experience. How I suggest you relate to and support someone with anxiety is based on what I have researched and practised on myself, I know what is proven to work and what works in reality, as I’ve experienced it. There isn’t a one size fits all cure but I believe that employing the above suggestions will help someone with anxiety to know that they’re not alone and you are there to support them as best you can. And when you’re in the grip of an anxiety attack that’s what you really need to know.
Photo by Milada Vigerova